The Vanity of Small Differences

I went to a talk by Grayson Perry at the British Museum last year when his exhibition was on. In one of his trademark garish frocks, he spoke for an hour without notes – funny, down to earth and self-deprecating.

The style was the same in his recent Channel 4 series All in the Best Possible Taste, where he explored the influence of class on taste, visiting Sunderland, Tunbridge Wells and the Cotswolds and depicting some of the people he met in a series of six tapestries. The tapestries were based on the idea of William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, which tells the story of the decline of young aristocrat Tom Rakewell as he spends his inherited money and ends up in Bedlam.

Detail from “Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close” by Grayson Perry

Detail from “Expulsion from the Garden of Eden” by Masaccio

Perry’s tapestries work in reverse, as baby Tim Rakewell reaches out for his mother’s smartphone in her Sunderland house, progresses through university and enters the middle class, finally dying in a car crash in his Ferrari after he’s sold his software company for a huge profit.

His tapestries were impressive enough on screen, designed in Photoshop and woven by computer-controlled loom in Flanders. But in real life they are dazzling, alive with marks, textures, and colour, and packed with the details that mark out the tribal tastes, from tattoos and china knick-knacks to William Morris wallpaper and Le Creuset cookware.

Detail from “The Upper Class at Bay” by Grayson Perry

“Mr and Mrs Andrews” by Thomas Gainsborough